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To compete in the 1970s, Wisconsin women's athletes dealt with cramped cars and uniform sharing

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Title IX gave University of Wisconsin women’s athletes and administrators a legal backing for their pursuit of better opportunities as the teams started under the athletic department umbrella in 1974.

But equipment, facilities and funding continued to present challenges and reminders that achieving equity wasn’t going to be easy.

“We had to provide our own shoes,” said Cindy Bremser, who came to UW for nursing but ended up as a track star who would compete in the 1984 Olympics. “When you look at the quality, it’s amazing we’re not all crippled.”

For one race, she wore shoes belonging to coach Peter Tegen.

“We called them his lucky shoes because I think I ran very well at the race,” Bremser said.

The rowing team used boats borrowed from the men’s team — the kind designed for training — when it started as a club in the spring of 1972. It turned to a group of women’s sports supporters to help purchase its first boat in which it won the National Women’s Rowing Association championship in 1975, the first national title for a UW women’s team.

“It took a village,” said Sue Ela, who helped form the rowing club and later became coach of the women’s team. “And I would say that a large part of the success of the rowing program, we have to nod to Kit Saunders and Paula Bonner and all those folks that were really in the leadership roles and behind the scenes and doing what they could to give us what we needed, all of us coaches, to make our Badgers teams successful.”

Sue Ela

Sue Ela at the Porter Boathouse on UW's campus Monday.

Basketball was one of the many women’s teams that practiced at Lathrop Hall when Becky Johnson started in 1973.

“The baskets were 3 feet from the wall, so if you were doing a layup, you pretty much hit the wall after you shot the ball,” she said.

They finally got the OK to practice in the Field House.

“I have this vivid memory of us being really excited that we were going to get to practice on the big floor for the first time,” said Johnson, who also played golf at UW and is now the interim president at Oregon State. “The men were practicing and we were in the bleachers there waiting, and everybody was excited. So we were loud. And John Powless, he was trying to talk to his team and he says, ‘Somebody tell those hens to shut up.’”

Women's basketball 1974-75 team photo

The 1974-75 Wisconsin women's basketball team, the first after the athletic department took over women's sports, poses for a team photo.

If you watched the basketball and volleyball teams compete, you’d notice similarities beyond that some women played on both squads. The teams were wearing the same uniforms.

“They were awful, scratchy, stiff material because they wanted them to last 10 years,” Johnson said.

Becky Johnson

Becky Johnson played basketball and golf at Wisconsin in the 1970s and is now the interim president at Oregon State.

Women athletes went without a full-time athletic trainer for the 1974-75 school year, but Kit Saunders-Nordeen, the women’s sports athletic director, got money in the budget to hire one in 1975. Gail Hirn, however, found the setup less than accommodating.

She could work out of the main training room in Camp Randall Stadium but not during the afternoon when male athletes and staff had the run of the place. Hirn moved to a small room at the Natatorium that was meagerly equipped and a decent walk from the sports facilities at the stadium.

“I didn’t complain to men because that certainly fell on deaf ears,” Hirn said. “They really didn’t want us there. We were infringing on their space and on their equipment.”

Activism prevalent

Hirn never found out whether Saunders-Nordeen, who died in 2021, knew about her involvement in some headline-making protests two years before she was hired.

A group of women crashed the Red Gym to play basketball. They then went to the all-male pool, stripped down and jumped in.

“Oh my gosh, that was a scene,” Hirn said. “Because there was not even a women’s bathroom in the Red Gym. And certainly no dressing room, no locker room. Oh my, those were the days.”

The women kept showing up, Hirn said, until the school committed later in 1973 to make room for a women’s locker room and shower facilities at the Red Gym and Natatorium.

Activism with the goal of gaining more access continued through the 1970s.

Ela became enamored with rowing while living in the lakeshore dorms and watching activities on the lake from the nearby boathouse. Two of her dorm acquaintances — Barb Schaefer and Kathy Wutke — had connections to the sport in their families, and they got the blessing and assistance of men’s crew coach Randy Jablonic to try to start a women’s club team.

It was one of the original sports when women’s teams joined the athletic department in 1974, but the women never had any changing space in the boathouse. It wasn’t uncommon, Ela said, for them to leave after a winter training session with wet hair that formed icicles by the time they reached their apartments.

In a classic line given the sport in which they competed, the women athletes were told not to rock the boat, Ela said, because administrators were working on the issue.

Wisconsin 1975 women's rowing champions

The Badgers women's rowing team won the National Women's Rowing Association championship in 1975. It was the first national championship for a UW women's team.

Ela was a first-year coach of the women’s team by 1979 and the athletes still didn’t have a changing room. Some of them decided that the ship needed a shake.

Ela got a phone call at home from one of her rowers in the evening of Dec. 3. The team was going to be late for practice the next day, she was advised.

“And you don’t need to know why,” Ela remembers hearing.

About 25 women’s rowing athletes used the common space outside Hirsch’s office at Camp Randall to change clothes for practice. They invited the Madison TV stations to document the protest.

Hirsch was out of town, but Saunders-Nordeen and associate athletic director Otto Breitenbach got the message. The team soon had some space in the basement of Humphrey Hall, a dorm near the boat house, to use as a locker room.

“By golly, it moved the needle and the needle needed to be moved,” Ela said. “Again, thanks to those people and their action as a team and their commitment, they got the job done.”

Financial pinch felt

Women's basketball huddle

The Badgers women's basketball team huddles during a timeout in a 1977 game at the Field House.

Despite the 1973 challenge of UW’s actions by the Association of Faculty Women, the timeline of Title IX regulations didn’t really start until the back half of the 1970s. The federal Health, Education and Welfare department issued guidelines in 1975 requiring equal opportunities and an equitable allocation of athletic scholarship money.

New tentative details were released for comment in 1978 and finalized in December 1979, with HEW vowing to consider equipment, scheduling, travel, per diem expenses, coaching and publicity when determining whether schools were giving sports programs from both genders a fair shake.

A three-prong test determined whether institutions were in compliance with Title IX. They could be cleared by showing substantial proportionality in opportunities for male and female athletes, a history of expanding opportunities for the underserved gender or full accommodation for the interest level of both genders.

UW administrators all the while grappled with the introduction of scholarships for women and a projected deficit for the athletic program. Chancellor Irving Shain laid out the difficulties in a March 3, 1978, memo to members of the Athletic Board in which he forecast “serious financial difficulty within several years” for athletics.

The university projected athletic budget deficits for the 1979-80 and 1980-81 fiscal years, a picture that he wrote was “worsened” by the upcoming reallocation of resources to women’s programs.

“The University must anticipate significant growth in the interest of women students in intercollegiate athletics, and with this the University will have to shift more resources to the women’s programs in order to insure the equality of opportunity that the women have a right to expect and the University has a moral obligation to provide,” Shain wrote.

Wisconsin women's basketball vs. Stevens Point

The Wisconsin women's basketball team plays UW-Stevens Point during the 1974-75 season.

New funding sources had to be found, he wrote, or men’s sports would need to be cut back. The proposed option he seemed to favor for implementing women’s athletic scholarships was, he admitted, on thin ice with Title IX compliance: Only sports that were income producers would get full tenders for both genders. Football, men’s basketball and men’s hockey were the only revenue sports, and women’s basketball would be included for scholarships.

UW contended at the time the income-producing sports should be treated separately for Title IX purposes, allowing non-revenue men’s and women’s sports to be the basis of judging on the school’s compliance. That argument didn’t fly in the end.

Women’s basketball coach Edwina Qualls filed a complaint with HEW in late 1977, citing disparities between the men’s and women’s teams at UW in scholarships, the size of coaching staffs, travel and practice schedules. Qualls withdrew the complaint in 1982.

“She took a lot of grief for that, but she did it for all the women’s sports,” said Tamara Flarup, who worked in UW sports information from 1977 to 2016 and was inducted into the UW Athletics Hall of Fame in 2021.

“And that did make a difference, that first complaint. And it was one of several through the years. Enforcement kept changing, the rules kept changing. But we needed to keep raising the level of consciousness and what the law was and how the law applied.”

A long and winding road

Women's rowing 1974-75

The Badgers women's rowing team competes during the 1974-75 season that ended with a national championship.

Some of the stories of how UW teams traveled in the 1970s are eye-opening. It wasn’t unusual for one of the players to be a driver of a car or van.

Johnson regularly got behind the wheel for the basketball team, which made the jump from facing mostly in-state teams to playing against other Big Ten schools while she was in school from 1973 to 1977.

Flarup recalled one trip to William Penn College in southwestern Iowa in 1978 or 1979 on which the basketball team took three station wagons.

“Before we even started, one of them had a flat,” she said. “And then we had no heat because it kept blowing fuses. So we would stop and put a new fuse on. We’d go for about an hour and then we’d have no heat again.”

The seating was cramped, with up to seven people to a station wagon, not to mention having to squeeze in equipment.

“And we’d get lost,” Hirn said. “It was just awful. It’s a good thing that we all really liked each other and got along.”

There wasn’t even a guarantee a vehicle from the UW fleet would be available. Tegen couldn’t get one for a track meet, so he drove Bremser and others in his own car.

When they stayed in hotels, women’s teams sometimes were four to a room where men’s rooms housed two.

“It’s like you’re living in the same big house,” said Bonner, who worked with and later succeeded Saunders-Nordeen, “but one floor has luxury accommodations and the other one is on the economy track.”

Some of the details came up earlier this year when Bonner, Flarup and other former UW athletics administrators spoke to current players and staff members as part of the athletic department’s celebration of 50 years of Title IX.

Flarup described the audience as at “rapt attention” to hear about the way things were at the beginning of the UW women’s intercollegiate athletic program.

“Just having to share uniforms, that was shocking to them,” Flarup said. “Having to drive cars that sometimes didn’t have heat. And just the lack of funding, the going to McDonald’s consistently because that’s all we could afford.”

For the progress shown in funding and accommodations for women’s sports since the 1970s, there are still reminders of inequities that remain. Gender equity reports released in 2021 highlighted some of the disparities in funding, opportunity and valuation between NCAA men’s and women’s championships.

The evolution of Title IX over 50 years hasn’t always been steady.

“It’s all taken time, but that’s how the world turns sometimes,” Ela said. “Gosh, the world is a better place in many ways and in many ways the struggle goes on.”

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